The logic of design failures in IDT

Robin, age three, effectively utilizes an old mattress as a trampoline. Spring 2022, Knoxville, TN.

The unforeseen consequences of a design are often thought to be failures, and sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they become “utilization,” as when a product is used for a purpose other than for which it was designed. See the image of the 3-year-old utilizing an old mattress for great trampoline-like jumping! In other cases, product failures may arise out of not satisfying the expectations, often unexpected expectations, of those other than the designer. This is unique among design failures. We do not encounter this dynamic as often in other design fields. For example, I imagine it is unlikely to find this in the product design world, “This pen case makes for a horrible baseball bat!” Obviously absurd, but common in IDT.

I have been trying to articulate this dynamic in IDT for years. These mismatched, lack-of-affordance relationships have so much to teach us. Yet this aspect of design failures in education is so subtle it almost always goes overlooked– illogical expectations can arise out of projections of users or stakeholders that were never meant to be satisfied in an original design. Instructional designs suffer from this failure constantly, and we, as designers, rarely learn to brush off the frustration completely. We design learning experiences to satisfy a certain set of constraints, specifications, and objectives. However, we are met with stakeholders’ evaluations of the instruction based on criteria never considered in the original design brief. If we stop to look around, this is almost always true somewhere in every instructional endeavor.

This universal phenomenon in the evaluation of instructional designs, which I am calling illogical expectations, is not invalid, but it is illogical. Compare this absurd comparison from cookware design, “This deep fryer is horrible at baking bread.” Immediately we know the evaluation is absurd. Now, parallel this comparison to instruction, “This multiple-choice test fails to teach any form of critical thinking.” Another example is when evaluation criteria do not address the instructional context, “How well does the teacher write on the blackboard?” ignoring the fact that the teacher does not instruct in a classroom that has or uses a blackboard. The same non-sensical logic that is obviously absurd in the evaluation of product design, cookware design, etc… is nevertheless almost ubiquitous in education.

If we had a term for this dynamic, it might be easier to call it out for what it is. We could say “unexplicated expectations”…or “unforeseen criteria on the success of a design.” I am not saying that my term here is the correct term, but it is a start. It also gets at another persistent problem of applying blame. We often say design failures are not the fault of the designers, and it’s true. Nevertheless, writers of design cases shy away from the term failures anyway. Failures is still too much design jargon in a field where that jargon is still a bit foreign. I like the term illogical expectations because it squarely plants blame outside the designer. We need this descriptive vocabulary around design failures. Right now we have only two terms in common usage: (1.) unforeseen obstacles, which are the events or dynamics preventing the smooth completion or successful implementation of a design, and (2.) unforeseen consequences, which are outcomes spawning from features of the design that caused unplanned learning or even harm. Maybe we can add (3.) illogical expectations— evaluative criteria of a design applied outside the knowledge of the designer. We already have an opposite term: happy accidents are serendipitous mistakes or unplanned positive results of design moves. Or of course, utilizing a mattress for a trampoline. That never gets old.